The shock factor of correctional officer training

By Alexander L. Burton, The University of Texas at Dallas, Cheryl Lero Jonson, Xavier University, and Haley N. Puddy, The University of Texas at Dallas

With staggering staff vacancy rates plaguing American prisons, state departments of correction are having to recruit and hire thousands of individuals to serve as correctional officers each year. Among these new recruits are individuals with varying backgrounds and experiences, with most previously working in the service and manual labor sectors. [1,2] With so few individuals coming from occupations related to corrections work (e.g., police, military), the majority of newly hired correctional officers have virtually no experience working within the walls of a prison. [3]

Consequently, the training academy often is the first experience individuals hired to serve as correctional officers have with a prison environment. As such, training academies must not only provide officers with the knowledge and skills needed to successfully perform their jobs, but they also should attempt to foster officers’ commitment and loyalty toward the occupation. [4]

In other words, the training academy carries special significance, serving as officers’ initial indoctrination into correctional culture and climate. [5] If training academies can facilitate and promote commitment to the occupation, it could be possible to slow the surge of correctional officers leaving the occupation each year. Thus, understanding how training academies may influence newly hired correctional officers’ intentions to remain on the job is a vital endeavor.

Our study

To gain insight into the potential impact of training academy instruction on newly hired correctional officers’ retention intentions, our study addresses two research questions:

  1. How long do newly hired correctional officers expect to work in their positions?
  2. What is the effect of academy training on correctional officers’ career tenure expectations?

To explore these two questions, we surveyed 184 newly hired officers from one Southern state’s correctional officer training academy in 2018. Officers were asked to complete the surveys before and after their academy training instruction, which lasted approximately three months and was comprised of nearly 500 hours of lectures, written lesson plans and simulation-based training. [6] The surveys were given to the officers before and after their training and included the question: “How long do you see yourself working in the position that you are currently in training for?”

Results

Officers provided a range of responses to this question. After reviewing the data, the responses to the career tenure expectations question were categorized into five distinct groups:

  • 2 years or less
  • 3-5 years
  • 6-10 years
  • 11 to 15 years
  • Long-term/retirement.

The table shows the results, with the responses to the question before the training academy next to the responses after the training academy.                 

There are two major takeaways from these findings.

First, prior to training, nearly 4 in 5 (79.8%) of the newly hired individuals believed that they would remain correctional officers for a long period of time (more than 15 years), and even into retirement. This finding is remarkable as a recent national survey found that 40% of newly hired correctional officers quit within their first year. [7]

Second, academy training, which is expected to increase the newly hired officers’ intentions to remain on the job and their commitment to the organization, had the opposite effect. Instead, nearly 20% fewer officers intended to stay on the job long-term or until retirement after undergoing academy training, while a greater percentage of officers saw themselves remaining on the job for five years or less.  

What can departments of correction do with this information?

With the majority of newly hired officers never having been exposed to prison-related work, correctional training academies are positioned to leave a significant imprint on those who will soon work in our nation’s prisons. [3] Beyond preparing officers to carry out their correctional officer roles, training academies also can create a positive correctional culture and climate that could result in greater longevity on the job. [4] However, the results of our recent study found that training academies are failing in this aspect, with fewer rather than more officers expressing they intend to remain on the job long-term after undergoing training. Thus, what can state departments of correction do to rectify this issue?

First, state departments of correction must invest in comprehensive assessments of their training academies. Importantly, these assessments should not only evaluate the content and logistics of the academy training, but they should also examine the academy’s culture and climate. [6]

As our research indicates, officers appear to be undergoing some sort of shock during their academy training that is leading them to rethink their intentions to stay on the job long-term. Rather than leaving the training excited, ready and invested in the job they are about to undertake, they leave the academy with a weaker commitment to the occupation.

Evaluations should examine a variety of factors including, but not limited to, congruence of officers’ and the department’s goals and values, the quality and attitudes of training academy instructors and officers’ wellbeing as they proceed through their training. [5,8,9] These assessments will provide evidence to inform modifications to the academy training to potentially remedy their negative effect on retention intentions.

Second, state departments of corrections also may consider conducting long-term evaluations of newly hired officers. In other words, beyond examining the impact of the training academy on officers’ intentions to stay on the job, assessments should continue throughout their career progression.

Although our findings are concerning, we only measured intentions to leave the occupation rather than officers actually resigning. Thus, state departments should engage in longitudinal research to explore both the impact of training as well as early-career stage factors that could be contributing to the surging turnover rates facing our correctional system. [7]

In closing, correctional officer training academies serve as the initial foray into prison work for most newly hired individuals. As such, they have an inordinate ability to create excitement and dedication to the profession. However, as they are currently implemented, they are not achieving this goal. In fact, the reality depicted in the academy appears to create what we call the “shock factor” of academy training; it tempers officers’ career tenure expectations.

Not all hope is lost, though. State departments of corrections can systematically explore the training academy’s culture and climate and create evidence-based solutions to this issue. When this occurs, more effective training academies can be developed for the thousands of officers who graduate from them each year.

Access additional corrections research by the authors

References

1. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT, Petrich DM, Burton VS, Jr. (2022.) Understanding who is hired to work in U.S. prisons and why it matters: A call for research. Corrections: Policy, Practice, and Research. Advanced online publication. 

2. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Petrich DM, Miller WT. (2023.) Nefarious and disconcerting motivations for choosing a correctional officer position: A deviant case analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior. Advanced online publication.

3. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT, Cook R. (2022.) Likely to stay or bound to leave? Exploring prior work histories of correctional officer recruits. Corrections Today, 84(5), 24-28.

4. Holton EF, III. (1996.) New employee development: A review and reconceptualization. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 7(3):233-252.

5. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Barnes JC, Miller WT, Burton VS, Jr. (2022.) Training as an opportunity for change: A pretest-posttest study of correctional officer orientations. Journal of Experimental Criminology. Advanced online publication.

6. Burton AL, Cullen FT, Lux J, Miller WT, Burton VS, Jr. (2018.) Creating a model correctional officer training academy: Implications from a national survey. Federal Probation, 81(1), 26-36.

7. Office of Correctional Health (2023). Staff recruitment and retention in corrections. American Correctional Issues: The challenge and ways forward. Corrections Today. (January/February Issue).

8. Chukwu GM. (2016.) Trainer attributes as drivers of training effectiveness. Industrial and Commercial Training, 48(7), 367-373. 

9. Miller WT, Burton AL, Jonson CL, Adkins P, Burton VS, Jr. (2023.) A multi-state outcome evaluation of correctional officer training academies: A pretest-posttest design. Justice Evaluation Journal. Advanced online publication.


About the authors

Alexander L. Burton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Cheryl Lero Jonson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Haley N. Puddy, M.S., is a doctoral student in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas.

Their research addresses recruitment, retention, attitudes, motivations and training of correctional officers and public policy.

Contact the authors about their research at Alexander.Burton@UTDallas.edu and jonsonc@xavier.edu.

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